If you happened by the tennis courts at Sellwood Park in Southeast Portland early in the morning last month, you’d have found a scene straight out of Tom Sawyer: Nisa’ Haron and seven of her friends power washing and sealing the cracked concrete, free of charge.
The eight Southeast Portland retirees are avid participants in America’s hottest sport: pickleball.
They’re part of the PDX Pickleball Club, which has 300 members and most often plays at Sellwood Park, where just two of the four tennis courts are usable. Not even a month ago, the other two were spidered with inch-and-a-half-wide cracks that made them unplayable.
The club decided to fix that this spring. Members raised $9,000 to repair the courts Portland Parks & Recreation had neglected and, while they were at it, change them to pickleball courts. In June, Haron says, two parks employees gave them permission to start the work on their own dime. After all, she adds, parks management assured the club in 2019 that making two of the tennis courts into pickleball courts was part of its eventual plan.
But on July 9, two weeks after repairs began, the parks bureau refused the offer. A city employee ordered the club to halt its repair work.
Parks officials told Haron and her friends they would need to pay $1,000 to apply for a city permit and, if granted, another $2,500 a week in rent while the work was completed, according to the club’s calculations.
Henrik Bothe, a club member who helped with the repairs, is crestfallen. “It goes nuts in the park with pickleball,” he says. “It’s just gangbusters. You’ll see all eight pickleball courts packed with people, and not your typical athletes—a lot of older people.”
Pickleball is one of America’s fastest-growing sports. Participation grew by 23% last year, says the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. The game’s smaller scale—it uses paddles instead of rackets, the court is a quarter the size of a tennis court, and the ball is hollow plastic with air holes—made it a pandemic favorite for people looking to socialize outdoors.
Yet Portland parks contain not a single dedicated pickleball court. Lines are painted on a handful of tennis courts across the city, but not nearly enough to support the game’s exploding popularity.
In fact, city documents show 73 of the city’s 103 tennis courts are in disrepair.
Last November, City Hall hit up the public for a $48 million annual property tax levy to maintain and protect parks, restore recreational programming and provide park upkeep. The city sought the taxpayer dollars after years of aggressive expansion and deferred maintenance. Faced with the threat of dire cuts in service, voters overwhelmingly approved the funding.
That makes it all the more puzzling that parks officials dismissed an offer from pickleballers to repair courts on their own time and with their own money. It appears the bureau squandered a perfect public relations opportunity and a free upgrade.
“We wanted to do this without having to use any taxpayer dollars, for ourselves but also for the good of our community,” says Cathy Owen, the club’s secretary and Haron’s wife. “It’s sat for decades, unused.”
In response to questions from WW, parks bureau spokesman Mark Ross said: “There may have been some communications issues between the advocates and [the bureau]. We are working to smooth out the confusion. We appreciate the passion and advocacy of park users and sports enthusiasts.” He declined to say whether the bureau would insist on charging the pickleball club rent to make free repairs.
Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who oversees the parks bureau, tells WW she regrets if there was miscommunication from the city but says she’s grateful to the club “for their enthusiasm and passion for bringing more access to the sport to our parks.”
The parks bureau is keenly aware that most of the city’s tennis courts are in poor shape. This year, parks officials created a list of courts they’re looking to refurbish in coming years, a number of which they want to rehab to make them usable for other emerging sports like pickleball and futsal.
The massive project is laid out in a June 2021 city document that details which parks are on the docket to be repaired and which could potentially be refurbished as pickleball courts. Sellwood is one. The estimated total project cost is $7.73 million.
The project prioritizes parks in lower-income areas like Peninsula, Lents and Fernhill. Sellwood, a relatively prosperous neighborhood, is not on the top-priority list.
That’s why PDX Pickleball Club thought it was handing the city a win.
The club sent a detailed project proposal on April 22 to a parks maintenance employee. On June 24, Haron says, that employee handed the club the keys to the utility shed so it could access water and electricity. Volunteers worked for two weeks, from 6 am to noon, with a 45-minute break to eat sandwiches from New Seasons.
“It was brutal. We’re not spring chickens—we’re all in our 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s,” says Haron, director of the club.
And then, on July 9, a parks employee drove up and told them they needed to halt their work until they got a permit. They’d filled all the cracks in the top two courts and were working on a skim coat next. He chained and locked the gate to the tennis courts.
Stephen Bouffard, who oversees permits for the parks bureau, told Haron in a July 23 email that their permit was requesting a change of use for the top two courts. In order to change the use of a parks facility, Bouffard wrote, the proposal would need to go through a public process.
Bouffard said the parks’ plan for court restoration and redevelopment for some courts for other sports, such as pickleball, was undergoing a “public engagement” process, and that plans for each court in need of repairs would be finalized in September.
Until then, the club’s permit would be kept on hold. “Thank you for the offer,” Bouffard wrote.
Haron says the club has spent upward of $9,000 on supplies for the repairs already. Most baffling of all: City documents show the parks bureau hasn’t figured out how it will pay for the tennis court restorations.
“Parks gets in their own way sometimes,” says Elizabeth Milner, who lives nearby and supports a pickleball court. “In this case, it seems in the interest of engaging the public. They’re actually missing an opportunity to partner with an already engaged public.”
Correction: Due to an editor’s error, this story incorrectly stated that the levy passed by voters in November would restore crumbling infrastructure. In fact, the levy funds the hiring of staff to maintain and protect parks, restore recreational programming and provide park upkeep. It cannot be used for capital projects, such as renovating tennis courts. A 2014 bond measure funded such capital projects. WW regrets the error.